Bill would boost local control to reduce risk of wildfire

As we begin the 113th Congress, Iím incredibly honored to have earned the trust of the people of the Third Congressional District and to serve as their representative for a second term. During my first term, I focused on advancing the issues that most directly impact Coloradans. Many of the most pressing items we worked on involved our stateís extensive open spaces and natural resources, including improving the conditions of our forests to prevent catastrophic wildfire.

After an extensive fact-finding process to determine the most effective path to restoring our forests back to health, I introduced the Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act. In just a short amount of time following the billís introduction last year, we were able to build a strong coalition of support that included the endorsements of 10 Colorado counties, and advanced it through the House Natural Resources Committee.

My first legislative priority for this Congress will be to reintroduce this comprehensive forest legislation to take immediate action to mitigate the conditions in Colorado forests that have fueled devastating fires like those in Waldo Canyon and High Park, as well as dozens more throughout our state this last year.

With millions of acres of beetle-killed timber, prolonged drought, unnaturally dense undergrowth in many areas, and warm temperatures combining to create prime conditions for fire, itís undeniable that Coloradoís forests need immediate attention. We need to put a plan in place and act on it as quickly as possible.

When developing a plan to improve conditions throughout the Western United Statesí vast expanses of forest, it makes sense to include the input of those who live in the region and have a boots-on-the-ground view of the urgent challenges facing forest management.

To that end, I propose a comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck approach to restoring forest health.

The Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act would give states and affected counties and tribes the authority to designate high-risk areas on National Forest System land and lands under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, as well as the authority to provide for the development of proposed emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects for those high-risk areas. With increased local control, states can better protect their communities, species habitats, water supplies and natural areas with preventive action to control the conditions behind devastating wildfires.

Additionally, this legislation would prevent delays of projects designed to increase safety and preserve natural habitats by reducing frivolous litigation. It achieves this by working within the guidelines of existing law to apply the expedited procedures and authorities under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 in an expanded range of areas. By applying these authorities and procedures, the bill would accelerate hazardous fuels reduction projects to mitigate conditions that pose an immediate threat to schools, recreation areas, utility or telephone infrastructure, campgrounds, heritage sites and other critical infrastructure.

Finally, the Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act would permanently authorize Good Neighbor Authority Ė the authority of the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to enter into cooperative agreements with state foresters to provide forest, rangeland and watershed protection services on applicable federal lands. This cooperative management style has proven to be extremely successful and is now praised as a common sense solution by people on both sides of the aisle.

Given the severity of the wildfires across Colorado last summer and the continued hazardous conditions for 2013, it is critical that we move this bill through the House and send it to the Senate as quickly as possible so that we can begin to address the problem. I am working with my colleagues on the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Agriculture Committee to bring this bill to the House floor, and I anticipate committee activity on it in the coming months.

We cannot wait for another summer of destruction to pass before taking action to improve forest conditions. Itís our responsibility to act now to proactively manage our forests, prevent future destruction and loss of life from wildfire, and foster a healthy natural environment.

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, represents Coloradoís Third Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Reach him at Scott.Tipton@mail.house.gov or (202) 225-4761.